Review of Chemical Heroes: Pharmacological Supersoldiers in the US Military. Andrew Bickford, Durham: Duke University Press, 2020, 320 pp.

Reviewed Book

Chemical Heroes: Pharmacological Supersoldiers in the US Military. Andrew Bickford, Durham: Duke University Press, 2020, 320 pp.

Chemical Heroes: Pharmacological Supersoldiers in the US Military. Andrew Bickford, Durham: Duke University Press, 2020, 320 pp. 

Christopher Webb

Duke University

In Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report (2002), a dystopic society has materialized from a new technology that allows the state to forecast crime and prevent it before it happens. Dick’s work of fiction deals with government hegemony and control but also prompts philosophical questions about the nature of reality, especially the notion of free will.  Likewise, Andrew Bickford’s Chemical Heroes: Pharmacological Supersoldiers in the US Military details the actions of a paranoid government determined to engineer transhuman “supersoldiers” to combat threats that have not yet materialized. Like The Minority Report, Bickford’s Chemical Heroes goes beyond the topical subject material to probe philosophical questions about human choice; in this case, focusing on concepts like heroism and bravery. However, Chemical Heroes is not a work of fiction; the story it tells is all too real.

Chemical Heroes is a meticulously researched account of the U.S.’s military’s mission to biomedically enhance its fighting force, creating supersoldiers who are both more technically effective and resilient against enemy weapons, environmental threats, disease, and their own inhibitions. The book opens with a fictional letter home from an imaginary future soldier.  Published in an actual 2001 U.S. military report, the letter fantasizes about not-yet-realized technologies, such as his bulletproof mechanized suit with camouflage capable of adapting to different environments in real time. In this suit, he can jump 7 vertical ft and run 20 mph while carrying 200 lb of weight. In closing, the soldier tells his parents about the “special meals” he eats for several days in preparation for a mission, which allow him to operate for two to three days straight. The letter offers a glimpse into Bickford’s analysis to come, which, like the letter, signals a troubling fantasy of a state determined to engineer cyborg soldiers who are not only more “machine” but also less “human” insofar as humanness can act to buffer the will of the state.

The book is broken into three sections: “Thematic Framings,” “Early Imaginaries of the US Supersoldier,” and “Imagining the Modern US Supersoldier.” In the first section, Bickford outlines his theoretical approach and emphasizes that soldiers are made. A powerful U.S. government orchestrates the production of service members, ever-striving to achieve as much of an assembly-line approach to soldier-production as possible. These soldiers will be more capable of executing the government’s highly planned vision to achieve tactical global dominance. The soldier-design process is distinctly preemptive, aiming to meet challenges before they materialize. To illustrate this, Bickford describes a reality that hit close to home for me. In the third chapter, “Government (T)Issue,” Bickford defines the concept of military “readiness” as “the command concern with having a unit that is combat-ready and combat-capable at all times” (p. 77).

Readiness is the ultimate goal of military medicine. During my own military service as an infantryman, in response to me expressing some displeasure at an unwanted mandatory medical procedure, the physician assistant who served as my battalion’s medical officer explicitly told me that his ultimate loyalty and professional obligation was to the unit and that his job was to maintain my body’s readiness, not to ensure my long-term health and well-being. In the civilian world, where the Hippocratic Oath shapes our view of physicians as agents of individual and public wellness, this military paradigm can be shockingly alien. But it is critical information, and Bickford (himself a veteran) aptly communicates it to readers. Ultimately, the goal of military medicine is always readiness, something not quite the same as wellness (broadly defined), which we imagine to be the goal of medicine. This complexity intensifies in a military that strives to be ready for things it cannot itself fully imagine.

In the second section, Bickford shares historical data that show the evolution of the concepts that animate current attempts to produce supersoldiers. Bickford distinguishes between “skin-out” technologies (external accoutrements) and “skin-in” technologies (biomedical interventions that fortify the soldier’s body and psychology). A significant portion of this section is dedicated to the theory of Dr. Marion Sulzberger, a 20th-century dermatologist (and veteran of both world wars) who worked to produce a kind of “internally imbedded biological armor” that he termed Idiophylaxis (p. 111). Bickford highlights the importance of “belief armor,” which is the psychological performance enhancement that occurs when the soldiers believe that they are protected.    

The third section explores contemporary projects of supersoldier production. These range from pharmaceutical interventions to crowdsourcing science fiction stories that feature threats the military has not yet imagined. Chapter 6, “The Force Is with You,” is perhaps the most disturbing in the book, as it describes the goal of stripping soldiers entirely of their human autonomy and agency, creating what are essentially remote-controlled biological robots. Battle suits that report the entire physical/psychological experience of soldiers to their chain of command, in real time, take away even the tiniest freedom for individual decision-making (including the choice to not shoot) that could have historically been concealable under the fog of battle. Similarly, the vexing logistical inconvenience of PTSD might be remedied through pharmaceutical interventions that erase the memory of traumatic events (contributing to scholarly debates about the very nature of trauma itself).    

Collectively, this work tells the story of a military that is subject to deep anxieties about the future threats it cannot imagine in the present and about the fragility of the machine’s weakest link: the soldier’s body. In spite of lofty rhetoric about strength and bravery, the military views soldiers as weak and fallible, prone to fear and trauma, and dependent on bodies that tire, feel hunger, bleed, get sick, and operate less effectively under environmental extremes like temperature and elevation. Motivated by these anxieties, the military aims to engineer fearless, bulletproof soldiers not only through skin out technologies but also through skin in biomedical engineering.  

Chemical Heroes fits firmly within a contemporary anthropological literature that tends to rely on Cold War–inspired models of militarism, in which a powerful state exercises hegemonic control over its agents (soldiers/the military) to dominate the globe and extract resources to its imperial center. Bickford also acknowledges the importance of the 21st-century semantic shift from the sterile soldier to the romantic/mythic “warrior” (see, e.g., Webb 2019), but imbeds it in his view that the contemporary direction of U.S. militarism is increasingly technoscientific and decidedly devoid of spirituality, romance, and myth. The state is the central animating force in Bickford’s story, and the aim is to make soldiers imagine that their bodies are the state. However, readers should be aware that this book contains neither ethnography nor the viewpoint of contemporary soldiers, who may be surprisingly ambivalent toward the state, sometimes intensely driven by individual veneration of spiritualized mythic warrior archetypes (as I’ve found in my own research with veterans as well as in my own 21st-century military service). In Bickford’s study, soldiers are bodies: machines to be exploited by the military as cogs in its increasingly medicalized technoscientific machinery. Bickford expertly achieves his aims to highlight the institutional vision of the military and its upper leadership, illustrating how soldiers are produced. An ethnographic approach, on the other hand, might have arrived at different conclusions by focusing on veterans as people rather than as exploited objects.

Chemical Heroes is an important and deeply researched archive of information regarding the U.S. military’s vision for the future. It provides explicit and detailed insights into the biomedicalization of the military’s institutional project, and teachers of medical anthropology will find this book useful as a clear example to illustrate the concept of medicalization to graduate and undergraduate students alike. The book is simultaneously technical and readable and will contribute to critical military studies, science and technology studies, as well as the anthropology of the body. 

References Cited

Dick, P. K. 2002. The Minority Report. New York: Pantheon Books.

Webb, C. 2019. The Wounds that Never Heal: Transgression, Liminality, and Ethical Ruin in Battlefield Thresholds. Ethnos 86: 552–69.